Mrs Osmond by John Banville – what Isabel Archer did next | Books

There has always been a virtuoso cast to John Banville’s novels; he sometimes seems at pains to prove himself capable of any brilliant technical thing. From the early channelling of unlikely voices – Copernicus, Kepler – through the recasting of The Tempest in Ghosts, to the Booker-winning homage to Beckett and the looping cadences of memory in The Sea, he is a writer who sets and aces his own examinations.

He once observed of his ambition that “when I speak of style, I mean the style Henry James spoke of when he wrote that, in literature, we move through a blessed world, in which we know nothing except through style”.

In Mrs Osmond, Banville’s worthy sequel to James’s The Portrait of a Lady, he tries the master’s own style on for size, imagines what it might be like to see the world through Jamesian eyes. Banville is not alone among contemporary writers in this ventriloquising desire – Colm Tóibín and Alan Hollinghurst have both been memorably seduced by those famous unspooling sentences – but he makes James something all his own.

On one level this book resolves some of the questions that have plagued anyone who followed the story of Mrs Osmond – Isabel Archer as was – in James’s novel. The Portrait of a Lady ended with Isabel, the young heiress seduced into an abusive marriage in Italy with the hateful Gilbert Osmond, out only for her money, escaping to England for her cousin’s funeral, but then apparently returning to Rome. The ambiguity of this conclusion lay in the question of whether Isabel was going back to her previous “entrapment” or had found the resolve to end her marriage (perhaps to take up the ardent offer of her stalker-ish admirer Caspar Goodwood, who took the opportunity to kiss her after the funeral).

Banville answers those questions, finally, though not until he has put Isabel through a series of soul-searching encounters and challenges. She delays her return in London, and then travels to Rome via Paris and Geneva and Florence, a truncated Grand Tour in the company of Staines, her maid, which offers plenty of scope for the kind of interiority, the minute shifts in temper and emotion in relation to quietly changing circumstance, that James made his signature. Banville has lots of sly amusement with these encounters, as Isabel visits her bank in London to withdraw an “amazing” sum of money in a leather satchel, (cash which takes on a life of its own in the story, lost and found) or seeks the advice of the spinster Miss Janeway, a suffragette and staunch vegetarian who feeds her overcooked broccoli and terse homily.

Banville is fully in stylistic character in these exchanges, but tips the reader just the hint of a knowing wink. Isabel turns the questions that plague her over in her head, like an undergraduate with a Henry James essay to deliver. “Had she been happy? At first, perhaps, but that contented first had soon given way to a lamentable second, which state itself lately ended with such violent abruptness that her nerves still vibrated from the blow like the tines of a tuning fork…”

There is an enjoyable archness about this; Isabel sometimes seems half-aware of herself as a character in a novel, but Banville is also a great storyteller. His book is not only an impressive recreation of James’s atmospheres and pacing, but also full of minor cliffhangers and page-turning suspenses that keep you guessing at that perennial dilemma: “Is independence a more important virtue to Isabel Archer than duty? Discuss.”

Mrs Osmond by John Banville is published by Viking (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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